Big data is a tech buzzword that instills varied emotions in the business community, from excitement to cynicism. To some, it’s a new era that is either:
– An incoming apocalypse (there goes our privacy!)
– An incoming paradise (there goes their privacy!)
The hype has arrived, but the era of big data is not exactly here although it’s here—yet organizations better be ready for it or they’ll go the way of the Myspace dodo (or something like that, according to some digital prophets).
Okay, but what exactly is big data?
Big data may seem like actualized science fiction, and in actuality science fiction is a suitable means of crystalizing technological advances (and sometimes inspire them, such as in the case of some of the first cell phones, inspired by Star Trek). By taking a look at some groundbreaking science fiction movies, one can easily (and perhaps ironically) demystify the notion of big data.
First, a technical definition of big data: There isn’t one.
To illustrate the murkiness of defining big data, Forbes published 12 Big Data Definitions: What’s Yours? The piece proffered several characterizations, from bland Wikipedia to eccentric scientists conjuring terms when pausing in their search for the next God particle. Nobody fully agrees, and in fact nobody even knows if the term should be capitalized.
In the most simplistic way, big data could be defined as this:
A lot of big-ass information floating around in digital form that if corralled could be useful for data research and statistical analysis…but it takes a big ass a machine as large as Skynet to successfully store, handle, and make sense of all this big ass information.
To wit: The big-ass information is basically a universe of records, forms, surveys, applications, and what not, just waiting to be organized and analyzed. This, in theory, can potentially make an organization near-prophetic (and others maybe just efficient). Big data could be a boon to such bulky industries like healthcare, military, human resources, and consumer insights.
At an American Marketing Conference, Justin Massa, CEO of Food Genius, adroitly defined big data as having five “V’s”:
Volume: The most obvious of the 5, there’s lots of data!
Velocity: The data grows and changes quickly.
Variety: Data comes in a variety of structures, creating complexity.
Veracity: “Dirty” data may need to be cleaned up.
Value: All that data is only useful if you can extract value.
(Perhaps coming close to the most suitable definition of big data, Massa added that it is any data that is too large to fit into an Excel file).
All of this ought to be useful. But again, glancing at science fiction movies we can see the allure and even potential of big data:
This iconic movie about rebellious machines is typified by those green digital numbers floating before the screen. The numbers clearly represent big data. Even the Matrix itself cannot fully manage this big-ass information with all its data mining (as seen by mathematical anomalies, rebellious programs like the Oracle and the Merovingian, and its many (many) climaxes in the plot). In the end (or after the first and third movie of the series), it’s actually the protagonist Neo who is able to process all the big data, becoming the ultimate tragic hero.
Lesson: No matter how efficient the technology, it still takes a human to understand the big picture of big data.
Many might not remember Darren Aronofsky’s directorial debut. The film is certainly an engaging exercise in understanding big data. The plot centers on the protagonist Max and his computer Euclid’s ability to predict the future movement of big data anywhere (something already in our world, called predictive analytics). As an example, Max is able to make stock predictions based on the calculations of Euclid. Could this eventually get him to unravel the secrets of the cosmos, all one big mathematical equation? In any event, all of this gets Max in some trouble with the authorities, business moguls, and even Jewish Kabbalists.
Lesson: The universe is one big, big data processor, unmatched by any mortal device. Be nice to it.
The latest bomb by Johnny Depp deals with the concept of Transhumanism, where computer and human become united in byte bliss. Depp’s character is the first to undergo this phenomena, immediately enjoying access to almost limitless information while struggling to retain his humanity (and girlfriend). Ultimately, it’s humanity’s ignorance that aborts so much potential, not the information being gathered and utilized.
Lesson: Turning back the clock on big data could be unwise, but not as much as not raising one’s empathy in any new era.
In this movie, it’s not curiosity or miffed machines that causes the leverage of big data. It’s motherhood. Lucy (played by Scarlett Johansson not being the Black Widow) is accidentally injected with massive amounts of CPh4, a drug found in expectant mothers that accelerates brain activity. Lucy acquires so much brain activity that she is able to tap into all the information of the planet and become basically divine (and still able to karate-kick bad guys, as happens in any Luc Besson film).
Lesson: Intelligence has to be nurtured like a child even before birth, so does big data.
None of the mentioned films really grants a pedantic definition of big data. Yet in a very Joseph Campbell-style, they make the idea of big data approachable, understandable, and even romantic. Part of the function of mythic art is to bestow humanity’s a workable relation the changing environment. These films are certainly mythic art; and science fiction additionally offers possible results in didactic flavors without us having to undergo them.
Ultimately, big data is nothing but a natural stage of the information era, another tool of qualitative market research. It’s just not as sexy as social media or smartphones (and no one still agrees on capitalizing those two).
There is one specific future we can depend on when it comes to big data, and all the cited movies agree: It’s not so much how big data acts that matters, it’s how humanity reacts to it that will make the difference.
The path to big data will certainly be a fine path between an apocalypse and a paradise.